Debate over public access to roundtables heats up as council, committee rules clash
The one moment of tension – and it was significant – at Tuesday’s school budget roundtable between the City Council and School Committee came at the beginning of questions and comments. Councillor Nadeem Mazen started the round with a jab at the decision that the meeting was not televised.
“We now have a rule that City Council roundtables should be televised,” Mazen said. “Is there any reason why we think that citizens don’t want to see this meeting?”
Meeting chairman and vice mayor Marc McGovern, glancing at a note passed by Mayor E. Denise Simmons, said, “As the mayor pointed out to me, the rules of the School Committee say that roundtables are not televised. Do we think that the public is not interested in seeing this? No. But I don’t think there was any ill intent.”
“Really?” Mazen shot back, suggesting that “it looks sneaky” to the public. The committee has “had a lot of time to change the rules,” he argued, and “it seems weird that we wouldn’t.”
Simmons interjected that while the issue was “important,” it was not “the call of the meeting.” Roundtables, she argued, not for the first time, are “opportunities for colleagues to roll up their sleeves” to do work. “I know this is not your intent,” she said, but the impression was that Mazen was “trying to embarrass us.”
“I am embarrassed. For all of us,” Mazen said.
“Don’t be embarrassed for me,” bellowed Richard Harding, not needing the benefit of a microphone. “If you are embarrassed, that’s your fault.”
“Okay,” Mazen said, “I will take off my embarrassed sleeves and put on my roll-up-and-get-to-work sleeves.”
“Still on the topic,” Simmons said sharply.
McGovern warned Mazen that his “accusatory tone was not appropriate.”
Mazen couldn’t quite move on before making another quick comment, which led Simmons to yell, pointing a finger, “You are out of order.”
“You are not chairing this meeting,” Mazen said in response, almost incredulously.
“I can change that,” Simmons said.
Councillor Craig Kelley left the room. Reached afterward, he said he had a previous engagement.
Mazen moved on to substantive questions. In the video above, the exchange begins at roughly the 39:30 mark.
Except for public hearings, the vast majority of budget-related meetings this season have not been televised. There have been 11 since Nov. 1, including four untelevised roundtables.
Reached afterward, McGovern said that the decision to name the meeting a “roundtable” – which by School Committee rules, determines it will not be televised – instead of, say, a “special meeting,” was made by himself, Simmons and committee budget co-chairs Harding and Kathleen Kelly. McGovern wanted to have the meeting on committee territory. “The fact that the meeting would not be televised was not a deciding factor,” he wrote, adding later, “it’s [the school committee] rules. We follow their rules in their building.”
As has happened frequently in recent years as the bodies keep roundtables untelevised, citizens and media have stepped in on their own. In this case, journalist John Hawkinson filmed and released it on YouTube.
This post was updated Feb. 18, 2017, to remove a reference to the committee announcing that three remaining budget special meeting and workshops would be televised.